The weathered, storied face of rapper-actor Saul Williams does the heaviest lifting in “Akilla’s Escape,” an exceedingly solemn crime drama from Canadian filmmaker Charles Officer that benefits from every ounce of his natural gravitas. As a Toronto drug trader facing the ugly roots of his underworld life in the wake of a botched deal, Williams conveys decades of isolation, ennui and internalized violence in a shorthand of creased eyes and twitching lips. Profound but uncomplaining pain seems to seep from his very pores. It’s a crinkled, considered feat of physical performance that “Akilla’s Escape,” unfortunately, doesn’t wholly count on: Instead, an overworked script underlines his trauma at every turn with fussy structural tricks and heavy-handed symbolism.
Despite an essential narrative that could have been plucked from many a straightforward B thriller, Officer’s film announces loftier intentions from its elaborate opening credit sequence, which alternates vintage newsreels and headlines of political unrest and gang violence in Jamaica with music video-style footage of Williams freely dancing — all to the strains of Bob Marley’s “Punky Reggae Party.” “Akilla’s Escape” goes on to vaguely deliver on this promise of earnest social consciousness, even if it’s subsequently short on detailed historical and political context. While the film is enriched by the social fabric and distinctive patois of Toronto’s Jamaican community, its storytelling isn’t exactly shaped by that milieu: Too much of the gangster back-and-forth here feels like it could be situated anywhere.
That generic, interchangeable quality is a particular debit in a narrative that comes to hinge on the tension between two timelines, as the action is split between contemporary Toronto and 1990s Brooklyn — neither of which feels much different from the other. In the present day, middle-aged Akilla Brown (Williams) is looking to restart his life. For years, he’s overseen a marijuana dispensary for a local kingpin, but with weed now legal, he hardly sees the point. On the eve of his departure, however, a routine handoff is violently intercepted by the brutal Area 6 Generals gang, who make off with a six-figure stash while leaving behind one of their rookies: terrified 15-year-old Sheppard (highly promising up-and-comer Thamela Mpumlwana), whom Akilla is quick to defend from the criminals he serves.
Akilla thus has one night to appease his robbed, out-for-blood employers while also delivering the kid to safety — the latter objective a crushing weight on his conscience, given his own induction into gang life at the same age. This is a none-too-surprising backstory that Williams’ quietly wounded performance could evoke all on its own; instead, Officer and co-writer Motion (aka poet and musician Wendy Motion Brathwaite) elect to dramatize it through copious flashbacks to his youth, bluntly stressing the parallel trajectories of man and boy by having Mpumlwana play the young Akilla too.
Thematically tidy as the device is, it rather muddies the film’s narrative thrust and momentum. Despite Mpumlwana’s fine, restrained work in both roles, neither child is as compellingly drawn or driven a figure as the adult Akilla. The flashbacks, meanwhile, serve only to shade in a burden of sadness that Williams palpably carries from his first scene. Affected chapter headings, imprecisely dividing past and present events alike into “Exhibits A, B and C,” further complicate proceedings that wind up feeling strangely convoluted, despite the simplicity of the stakes. If the dual narratives aren’t confusing in themselves, the relative lack of textured period detail in the 1990s-set scenes makes them more of a chore to track than they should be.
What “Akilla’s Escape” lacks in narrative snap it nearly makes up for in thick, anxious, twilit mood — liberally applied across both timelines, as befits a film about crime’s oppressively cyclical influence. Maya Bankovic’s sharply stylized cinematography is a consistent asset, painting in reds across the spectrum from neon to dried blood, and often confining characters in tight cells of shadow.
Williams, meanwhile, isn’t merely content to be the film’s MVP in a performance capacity: In collaboration with former Massive Attack member Robert Del Naja (here credited as 3D), he contributes an unusual, unsettling score of discordant electronic wisps and rumbles, sparking off scraps of beatboxing and alien vocal chatter. In his first significant screen role since Senegalese director Alain Gomis’ bewitching 2012 day-in-the-death journey “Today,” Williams’ effortless, near-otherworldly presence gives “Akilla’s Escape” all the grace and mystique it requires; the film strains a little too hard for its own.